On April 1, 2017, Professor Hafedh Ateb, a scientist who founded the Tunisian Astronomical Society, published a post on his Facebook page to denounce a forthcoming PhD thesis (Ateb 2017). Its subject? The geocentric universe with a flat and young Earth. It was not an April Fool’s joke.
With a bit of condescension, the astronomical (or more generally the scientific) community on this side of the Atlantic often thinks that geocentrism and young (or flat) Earth are typically American ideas. We generally ignore the regular Eurobarometers revealing that one third of Europeans prefer a geocentric model to a heliocentric one. We also choose to avoid seeing the multitude of YouTube videos in languages other than English explaining at length why the earth is flat or young. Indeed, few of us are doing outreach, and even fewer are tackling or simply encountering pseudosciences.
The Tunisian scandal was therefore totally unexpected, even more so because it did not involve a basketball player or some rapper but rather university people from a science faculty. Of course, some thought, “Well, you know, that’s the Middle East” (usually said, again, with a condescending tone). They forget that medieval astronomy was dominated by Arabic and/or Muslim thinkers, who made several important contributions to the field (for a review, see, e.g., Nazé 2018), and that Tunisia has good universities to this day (and many researchers abroad in prestigious institutions). A second look was thus merited.
The original post by Professor Ateb did not mention the name of the PhD student, the promoter, or the university. After expressing his surprise and sadness, Ateb simply quoted verbatim the conclusion of the manuscript that a favorable wind had brought to his desk. With numerous French spelling mistakes, this conclusion states that the thesis demonstrates, thanks to physical and religious arguments, that Earth’s surface is stable, central, and flat. The age of the earth, the formation of clouds, and more generally the science of the climate (including the Flood), the speeds of light and sound, as well as the distances and sizes of stars and planets are also examined and revised, with the new values better agreeing with Scriptures. In addition, the stars are mentioned to have three roles: (1) decorating the sky, (2) lapidating the devils, and (3) providing signs to guide the creatures in the terrestrial darkness. In the same vein, the role of the planets is said to be the protection of the sky against devils; they can be thrown toward demons by angels.
Because of Ateb’s reputation and the number of his followers, the news spread rapidly. Many local and international media in Arabic, French (e.g., Jeune Afrique), and English (e.g., Gulf News) quickly related the case and interviewed eminent people to understand how this could have happened in a modern country.
In these articles, the names became public: the student was Mrs. Amira Kharroubi, her promoter professor Jamel Touir, and their university was that of Sfax. A few days later, the Tunisian Astronomical Society posted a statement calling for better teaching in physics and astronomy, the creation of a space pole in Tunisia, and better monitoring of theses in the country’s universities (Kamoun 2017).
Finally, a week after the beginning of the scandal, the TAP press agency announced that the committee overlooking theses in environmental studies at the Sfax University had met and decided to reject the thesis because of severe scientific and ethical shortcomings (MKJ 2017). An ongoing inquiry is also mentioned, recognizing the presence of administrative problems in this case.
This is indeed the most important point. It seems that rejection only occurred because the case was publicized in the media, so one may wonder what would have happened if Professor Ateb had never received the manuscript. Safeguards are supposed to exist, however. For any thesis in Tunisia, the framework (people involved—student, promoter—as well as the subject) must be accepted by a specific committee. This is even more true for the most prestigious universities of the country, such as the one at Sfax. However, the thesis framework had been accepted without problem by the Sfax committee, though the subject was made clear from the start, in the academic year 2011–2012!3 It remains unclear whether this may happen again (or has happened before) and what type of funding was used for this “research” (notably for paying the page charges of the associated publication, see below). The university, the faculty, and the committee haven’t responded to (repeated) interview requests.
It is also worth mentioning that the thesis promoter is not totally unknown. On his Scopus record,4 Touir is quoted to have an h-index of six, with nineteen geological publications (four as first author) since 2004 and seventy-five citations to them. This is not high for a mid-career scientist, but this is sufficient to demonstrate scientific activity, at least in the field of geology. When the scandal broke out, his reaction in the media seemed quite amiss (Touir 2017). He defended the work, claiming to be the subject of a malicious campaign to undermine his reputation and scientific skills, and called on academic freedom and freedom of thought “guaranteed by the Constitution.” In passing, he also mentioned that the student basically chose the subject. However, it was clearly an astronomical subject (although he is a specialist in geology), so one may wonder why, as a scientist, he hadn’t directed the student to a colleague specialized in these matters. Furthermore, since he was deputy at the National Constituent Assembly from 2011 to 2014 (as a member of a progressive party, Ettakatol), he had little time to actually supervise a thesis back then—again, a good reason to decline and direct the student to a colleague. From the tone of the thesis conclusion, it may be imagined that religion played a role in his decision, but unfortunately, his actual motives will most probably remain private since he doesn’t answer interview requests.
While the thesis manuscript itself remains unpublished, Professor Touir directed journalists to a published article5 (Kharroubi and Touir 2016). Publication occurred in The International Journal of Science and Technoledge, a journal unknown to very thorough astronomical databases such as ADS.6 Its website7 mentions peer-reviewing (though see below), an impact factor of 1.002 (though the journal doesn’t appear in the usual impact factor tools), a small publishing fee, and, tellingly, an editor-in-chief with a diploma in “homeopathy & biochemic.” This is not reassuring, but the worst is yet to come. The Kharroubi and Touir paper is centered on the geocentric model, the first step toward flat-earth astronomy (see Parallax 1865, endnote 1). It is written in English but with numerous obvious linguistic mistakes (for example “Lactic Way” rather than “Milky Way” and “NAZA” rather than “NASA”). This is not the main problem, though, as the article is full of scientific errors. First, there are several incorrect quotes: for example, the introduction against heliocentrism quotes a few sentences from a book by Indian astrophysicist J.V. Narlikar without providing the context, which actually totally changes the meaning. Second, there are also arguments based on solved problems such as the Pioneer anomaly or the “faster-than light” neutrinos from CERN. Third, there are also non-arguments, e.g., heliocentrism is rejected because the Sun has a motion around the center of the galaxy; this is true, but that doesn’t mean geocentrism is correct instead—this is a textbook case of false dilemma. Fourth, there are blatant mistakes: in their Figure 1, the heliocentric model has the Moon revolving around the Sun; the text mentions the need for Earth of some “self-power” to change its orbital velocity and a link between that speed and the occurrence of seasons; it also asserts the “fact” that the Sirius parallax was never measured as well as the impossibility in a heliocentric model to have geostationary satellites or meteor showers preferentially seen in the morning, as observed. In addition, there are also the usual kinematic arguments dating back to antiquity and long since rejected. Last, there are a few mentions of observations and to one experiment. Observations are simple ones made by the naked eye (e.g., Moon rises in the East and sets in the West), without the somewhat detailed measurements or long observations that are required to go beyond the simplest8 version of geocentrism used here. The (very simple) experiment is about shadows, but in a wrong framework, again reflecting a profound misunderstanding of the geocentric and heliocentric models (sundials would work in both cases, contrary to what is said there). Considering the content of this article, it seems clear that there was no serious peer-review, contrary to the statement on the journal’s website. In addition, there is a strong contrast between this article and the geological ones linked to Touir, which are rather standard, demonstrating different levels of vigilance, or a double-standard—a behavior difficult to understand for a scientist. As he recommends reading this article to understand the global quality of his student’s work, the unavoidable conclusion is that this work is simply scientifically worthless.
Finally, it is also worth examining the reactions of some colleagues to this scandal. Beyond the paternalist and/or ironic ones already mentioned, there were also a few defending Touir, sometimes indirectly. Ghanem Marrakchi (2017) blames social media, stating that science is done in scientific journals not by Internet posts. This is certainly true in general, but without the initial post by Professor Ateb, the thesis would certainly have been defended by now, and a PhD status given for pseudoscientific work. In this case, social networks were actually useful. He also mentioned that science should be judged on published articles. When contacted, Marrakchi mentioned that he had read the 2016 article mentioned above, but he could not judge its content because it was not his field of expertise. In view of the many obvious methodological problems and basic astronomical content (such as the occurrence and cause of seasons), it is doubtful that the article content could not be easily assessed. Besides, if he doesn’t consider himself competent on the topic, having a geologist undertaking astronomical research should also appear problematic.
The lesson we may learn from this case, as scientists and skeptics, is this: we should not hesitate to ask and inquire and denounce problems if needed—we should not wait for a good soul to come and act in our place. In particular, supervision committees exist and should be used. This implies that we should examine what our eyes see and not just acknowledge without reading, as is often the case in such committee meetings. However, that doesn’t mean actual research on “strange” or “peculiar” subjects should be rejected right away. How would we know without tests that homeopathy works no more than a placebo? As a student, promoter, colleague, or friend, we should perhaps simply always remember to think (critically, of course)!
- Ateb, H. 2017. Facebook post. Available online at https://www.facebook.com/hafedh.ateb/posts/10211022808878459.
- Kamoun, D.S. 2017. Facebook post. Available online at https://www.facebook.com/SATien Libre/photos/a.120465601311970.16121. 119528784738985/1672542982770883/ ?type=3&theater.
- Kharroubi, A., and J. Touir. 2016. The geocentric model of the Earth: Physics and astronomy arguments. The International Journal of Science & Technoledge 4(8): 57–62. Available online at https://www.gianfuffo.org/uploads/4/2/6/9/4269865/2016_the_international_journal_of_science___technoledge_flatearth.pdf.
- Marrakchi, G. 2017. Sfax: De la pollution atmosphérique à la pollution scientifique. Leaders. Available online at http://www.leaders.com.tn/article/22019-sfax-de-la-pollution-atmospherique-a-la-pollution-scientifique.
- MKJ. 2017. Tunisie: La thèse de doctorat, “la terre est plate,” définitivement rejetée. Webdo. Available online at http://www.webdo.tn/2017/04/10/tunisie-these-de-doctorat-de-terre-plate-definitivement-rejetee/; see also http://www.businessnews.com.tn/ministere-de-lenseignement-superieur–la-these-affirmant-que-la-terre-est-plate-a-ete-rejetee,520,71495,3
- Nazé, Y. 2018. Astronomies du passé. Belin (France); new edition of Astronomie des Anciens by the same author.
- Touir, J. 2017. Facebook post reproduction. Available online at http://www.businessnews.com.tn/jamel-touir–on-veut-porter-atteinte-a-mes-competences-scientifiques,520,71312,3. (His Facebook account has been closed.) See also, http://www.jeuneafrique.com/424393/societe/tunisie-these-affirmant-terre-plate-provoque-stupeur-consternation-monde-universitaire/.